Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 7:30pm
Roland Barthes in Montreal

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Of Sport and Men, Hubert Aquin, digital projection, 1961, 58 mins
Wrestling, Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière, Claude Fournier, and Claude Jutra, 16mm, 1961, 28 mins

Introduced by Yve-Alain Bois

Despite the importance Roland Barthes has had to our understanding of cinema, few today know of his involvement with two documentaries produced in Montreal by Canada’s National Film Board in 1961: Of Sport and Men (Le Sport et les hommes), made with broadcaster and writer Hubert Aquin, and Wrestling (La Lutte), directed by cinéma vérité pioneers Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière, Claude Fournier, and Claude Jutra.

Aquin contacted Barthes in the spring of 1960, after re-reading Mythologies, which at the time had a wide influence among Quebecois intellectuals. “My intention,” Aquin wrote in his proposal to Barthes, “is not to make a film on the history of sport, but rather one on its phenomenology and its poetics,” in the spirit of Barthes’s own cultural semiotics. The two men hashed out the themes and shape of the project together via a series of letters, resulting in an essay film edited from stock footage of bullfighting, car racing, the Tour de France, soccer, and of course hockey. Through a narration written by Barthes, it continuously probes and analyzes the nature of modern sport, its politics, its erotics, its underlying meanings. One of Of Sport and Men’s central concepts is how athletics channel the latent violence of society into a collectively experienced mass ritual, one in which, as Barthes writes, “man’s actions are aimed, not at the domination of other men, but at the domination of things.”

Here, watching is not only living, suffering, hoping, understanding; it is also saying it, with the voice, with the gesture, with the expression; it is taking the whole world to witness; in a word, it is to communicate. Ultimately, in man there is strength, conflict, joys, and fears. Sport provides an outlet for these forces, liberating them and putting them to use, but without ever allowing them to destroy. Through sport, man experiences the struggle for survival, but the combat is reduced to the form of a spectacle, its effects, its dangers and its humiliation removed. It has lost its harmfulness, but not its spectacular appeal or its significance.

This passage from Barthes’s script for Of Sport and Men might as well sum up the spirit of Wrestling, a portrait of professional wrestlers in Montreal made during the golden age of Canadian direct cinema. The filmmakers originally intended to expose pro wrestling’s fakery using slow-motion techniques, but a chance meeting between Brault and Barthes while the French writer was in Quebec led to a radical change of approach. Upon Barthes’s insistence, the movie instead became a celebration of the sport’s showmanship and aesthetics, partially inspired by his own writing on the subject. Barthes joined the documentarians on their shoot as they captured images of wrestlers training at the gym, battling in the ring, and spewing bloody-mouthed threats of revenge to the camera after the match. Like many of the great vérité works, Wrestling becomes at once a naked observation of the world as it unfolds, and a record of highly choreographed performances in all their intensity. The film conveys what Barthes wrote, years earlier, in a seminal essay from Mythologies: “What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.”

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.